At the beginning of every volunteer workday, Habitat for Humanity’s Joyce McCullough tells the troops that they’re going to walk away feeling “tired, dirty and happy.”
When we met at the organization’s Goleta headquarters, McCullough wasn’t the least bit tired or dirty, but she certainly was happy. The executive director’s sunny disposition permeates the office, which has a paid staff of six, who work hand in hand with hundreds of unpaid volunteers to build low-income housing.
Reflecting on her almost nine years at the helm of Habitat for Humanity of Southern Santa Barbara County — a local affiliate of the international nonprofit organization whose mission is to mobilize community partners and volunteers in building affordable housing — McCullough can’t hide her enthusiasm.
“It’s just been so much fun,” she said. “The people who we get to come on board with us are just amazing. They have the biggest hearts, and it’s just been wonderful to be a part of this community of caring.”
Expressing appreciation for the “community leaders who have joined our cause,” as well as her “fabulous staff” and “a phenomenal board of directors,” she said the strength in numbers makes her work easy.
“People really appreciate when you can give back right here in your own community,” she said. “And people love building; they just love to have a hammer in their hands. ... Seeing something that you have created to make a family’s life better is really satisfying.”
Describing herself as “a wannabe architect,” McCullough’s role at Habitat came about serendipitously.
“I love houses, I love building, I love remodeling, I love running around with a paintbrush or a paint roller, and I love design,” she said. “For recreation I read design books, and my husband and I have done a lot of remodel work in a variety of places (including several houses in Santa Barbara).”
McCullough and her husband, Bill, sold their medical supply business in the Bay Area and moved to Santa Barbara about 10 years ago, joining daughter Allison, a Westmont College graduate, and her young family. They also have a grown son and daughter-in-law who live in Portland.
“I decided that for the second third of my life I wanted to do something to try to have impact for other people,” McCullough said. “I had known about Habitat for Humanity through our church up in the Bay Area, and I came down here and it turned out one of my daughter’s friends was on the board ... so I talked to her and said, ‘Tell me about this and how did you get involved, what do you do and could somebody like me get involved?’”
The timing was perfect. The local chapter of Habitat was started by volunteers — primarily from First Baptist Church and Santa Barbara Community Church — and they were ready to hire an executive director.
“I thought, ‘Can you imagine what a dream job that would be to go and build houses?’” recalled McCullough, who grew up in Minneapolis. “So I went home and I told my husband, ‘you should apply for that.’
“And he said, ‘No, you apply for it,’” she laughed. “So I did.”
McCullough said the organization was looking for a leader with entrepreneurial spirit.
“One of the first board members said, ‘Are you a rainmaker?’ and I wasn’t really familiar with that term,” she said. “I said, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘It’s somebody who can make things happen and takes initiative.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ So they hired me.”
Indeed, McCullough has made things happen in a big way.
Habitat for Humanity has completed two affordable building projects in Santa Barbara — three condominiums on Via Lucero near North La Cumbre Road and four homes on San Pascual Street on the Westside. It is now in the development phase of a third project, 12 affordable homes on East Canon Perdido — the Santa Barbara chapter’s largest project to date.
The dedication of the Via Lucero project “is still one of my favorite days of all time,” McCullough said. “Turning over a key to a family that’s been working so hard for almost two years, taking classes and building a house, and then here it is the day, it’s really exciting.
“The sweat equity part of it feels so good,” she continued. “You get these families out there swinging hammers and they’re so proud of it, and the volunteers absolutely love it, too. It’s a really tangible, feel-good thing for volunteers.”
While opportunities to help with the Canon Perdido project won’t be announced until later, McCullough encourages people to volunteer to work in the Habitat ReStore in Goleta. The store, at 6725 Hollister Ave. in Cabrillo Business Park, sells high-quality used and surplus building materials at a fraction of retail prices.
There are also opportunities to volunteer for Brush With Kindness, which works with low-income homeowners who can’t afford to maintain their homes.
“Sometimes they are elderly people who just don’t have the physical wherewithal to maintain a home,” she explained of the Brush With Kindness program. “We’ve gone out and done painting, landscaping, fence repairs, planted trees, exterior repairs — all things to improve people’s quality of life so they can stay in their homes a little bit longer. We’re always looking for more projects. They’re one- or two-weekend projects and we’ll take groups of 10-15 volunteers and really blow it out. It’s fun.”
McCullough credits her husband as her “chief volunteer.” Now retired, “he’s out on the build site a lot, and he’s working behind-the-scenes helping us track down parts, donations and raw materials, as well as network partnerships. It’s a great team effort.”
The McCulloughs live in a home they built themselves in Mission Canyon.
“When I drive home, I go by the Mission and I made a vow to myself when we first moved out here, don’t ever drive by that location and take it for granted,” she said. “There are people who come from around the world to look at that building and it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to be here.”
The couple love to travel and cook (“Actually, Bill’s a better cook than I am but we both love good food,” she said.), they’re active in Santa Barbara Community Church, and they have a new addition to their home.
“We just got a new puppy a year ago and she’s adorable,” she said of their Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. “She’s a little doll. I’ll be driving up the driveway and Bill will say, ‘Mom’s home,’ and wherever she is, she just barrels past to meet me at the front door. I love it!”
Habitat for Humanity is known for working in rural and semi-rural areas, but McCullough says that’s not the case in Santa Barbara.
“We’re finding our model of in-fill projects is more common nowadays as cities don’t have land to give away,” she said. “It’s been interesting to start from scratch in a region that’s this expensive but also this saturated with nonprofits.”
The need for affordable housing in Santa Barbara is massive, she says.
“If we look at the census figures from 2010, over half of the population of Santa Barbara County is what they call cost-burdened, meaning over 50 percent of their annual income is in rent,” she explained/ “That’s over half of our population that have some level of need. It is really hard for a family any place almost on the lower to middle of the income scale to be able to afford a house here.”
With the high cost of land, the challenges are many, but what keeps McCullough’s sunny side up is, “it’s such a neat community to work in because people are supportive. They get it, they understand they have a passion and they care. ... For me, the very best thing about working in this job is seeing how this community responds to people in need. It’s just so satisfying that people care.”